Supreme Court reverses Ninth Circuit's ruling that Petrella's copyright damages claim was barred by laches, and remands

Petrella v. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc., et al. (May 19, 2014) (Ginsburg, J.) (Dissent, Breyer, J.) (No. 12—1315) (4 of 5 stars)

Petrella's father wrote the screenplay for "Raging Bull," and she delayed 18 years in suing MGM. She sought only three years of damages because of the statutory copyright damages limit. The district court and Ninth Circuit found all of Petrella's claim for past damages blocked by laches, and the Supreme Court reversed: (1) "the copyright statute of limitations, [section] 507(b), itself takes account of delay" by permitting a prospective plaintiff to recover relief for the three year period leading up to the suit, slip op. at 11; (2) "[the Court] never applied laches to bar in their entirety claims for discrete wrongs occurring within a federally prescribed limitations period," id. at 14-15; (3) laches is unlike equitable tolling, which is effectively a rule of interpretation tied to a specific statute of limitations; (4) the statute of limitations and separate-accrual rule allow a copyright owner to defer suing a potential infringer until she determines whether "litigation is worth the candle," id. at 17; (5) no evidentiary concerns justified invoking laches; and (6) estoppel is different than laches, because it rests on misleading representations and not on delay. Petrella's claims also did not present any "extraordinary circumstances" that could justify threshold dismissal. Petrella notified MGM before MGM made a substantial investment in a new edition of the film and the remedy sought would not result in the "total destruction" of the film. Importantly, the Court did "not ha[ve] occasion to review the Federal Circuit's position" on laches for patent cases.

DISSENT (J. Breyer): In Justice Breyer's view, a number of circumstances warrant the application of laches for delay-related inequity for copyright claims. Although "long delays do not automatically prove inequity, [] depending upon the circumstances, they raise the possibility." Dissent at 4. In addition, the copyright statute is silent on whether the inclusion of a statute of limitations was intended to bar the operation of laches, and "silence is consistent, not inconsistent, with the application of equitable doctrines." Id. at 7. Moreover, there is no basis to believe that the Court announced "a general rule about the availability of laches in actions for legal relief, whenever Congress provides a statute of limitations." Id. at 10.